School examiners filmed ‘cheating’ to boost grades

Undercover journalists have revealed an exam scandal: the same people who set exams have been giving teachers unfair information on how to help pupils pass them.

‘We’re cheating,’ said examiner Paul Evans to his audience of teachers, ‘we’re telling you the cycle. Probably the regulator will tell us off.’

It could get a lot worse than that. What Evans didn’t know was that one of the ‘teachers’ in his audience was really a reporter for the Daily Telegraph. His bending of the rules was about to become front page news.

Evans was speaking at a seminar for teachers laid on by the WJEC exam board, one of several bodies that sets and marks exams in the UK and other countries. Teachers had traveled from all over Britain to attend, paying around £100 each in the hope of picking up some tips on how to teach History GCSE.

According to reporters, who attended seminars like this from several exam boards, the advice went far beyond legitimate tips. Instead, they say, teachers were ‘routinely’ given information on precise wording pupils should use, on facts they should quote, even on what questions would appear in upcoming exam papers.

At Paul Evans’ seminar teachers were told that they needn’t even teach a whole area of the history syllabus. Instead, he suggested, his audience might want to spend the time just ‘hammering exam technique’, in the hope of pushing pupils towards higher marks.

These revelations will reinforce an old criticism: that exam standards in Britain are being ‘dumbed down’. Results for A-level and GCSE pupils have been rising steadily for years, with more young people than ever getting the highest possible marks. Some educators have long suspected that this is not because pupils are getting better but because exams are getting easier to pass.

Why might this be the case? Because different exam providers are competing between themselves over who can attract schools to take their exams. Schools, driven by pressure to score high on league tables of results, are tempted to choose the exam provider that will give pupils the easiest test. That gives examiners like Paul Evans an incentive to take ‘helping’ too far.

Testing times

Following the Telegraph’s accusations, British education secretary Michael Gove has ordered an urgent inquiry into exam standards. He may conclude that the system is badly in need of toughening up; that examiners should stop giving so much help to teachers; that pupils would benefit from being given a stricter test.

But others are already arguing that tougher exams are the problem, not the solution. Teaching, they say, is being distorted by the need to prepare young people for a constant stream of tests. Of course teachers do their best to get pupils good exam results – when results are so important in later life. Exams are given too much significance, and that is what leads to scandals like this one.

You Decide

  1. Should exams be easier, harder, or not exist at all?
  2. What sorts of qualities do exams encourage in pupils? Are those useful qualities?

Activities

  1. If you were setting an exam, what would you ask? In groups, create your own ‘life exams’ – then make another group take your test.
  2. The famous exam for a fellowship at All Souls College, Oxford, used to involve writing a whole essay about a single word. Try writing your own one-word essay, on a word of your choice.

Some People Say...

“Exams are a waste of time.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Have schools always made pupils sit exams?
Not at all. The first standardised tests didn’t appear in the UK until the 19th Century. They were set by universities like Oxford and Cambridge. National standards started to come together in around 1918.
And were exams really harder in the old days?
Older generations like to claim that, although it’s very difficult to tell. Many people would argue the opposite: that education is better today, and exams more demanding. There are certainly more of them.
And the world’s hardest exam?
There are a few contenders. One notorious exam is the one-word essay set by All Souls College, Oxford. The best students each year were invited to write a whole three-hour essay based on a single word.

Word Watch

Regulator
In Britain, the quality of exams is monitored and checked by a body called Ofqual. Many industries have ‘regulators’ of this sort: for example, ‘Ofwat’, for water suppliers, ‘Ofgem’, for gas and electricity and ‘Ofcom’, for broadcasters.
Competing
Fees for GCSE and A-Level testing can run as high as £300,000 for a big school, making exams a multi-million pound industry.
League tables
League tables rank schools according to their exam results. Supporters of this system say it allows parents to see how their children’s school is doing, and whether or not it is improving. Opponents say it results in exams being given too much importance.